When Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveiled a giant “Open for Summer July 1” sign at an outdoor news conference in Edmonton last week, he could barely contain his excitement.
“We did it!” he declared as the province hit its goal of getting the first dose of COVID vaccines into 70 per cent of Albertans. “You did it,” Kenney added, giving Albertans a virtual pat on the back.
But he didn’t thank the one person who is perhaps most responsible for helping Alberta open for summer: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
As much as this must vex Kenney, it was his political nemesis who procured and delivered millions of doses of COVID vaccines to help Alberta beat down the pandemic.
Oh, Kenney is grateful for the vaccines, but he makes it sound as if they arrived out of the blue, like the glorious sunny days that have greeted Albertans this week.
“Thanks to vaccines, and the millions of Albertans who have been protected by them, we finally have the upper hand on this virus and can safely open up our province,” said a jubilant Kenney. “So mark it on the calendar, folks. On July 1, Alberta isn’t just open for summer, but I believe it’ll be open for good.”
Kenney has made plans for a “pretty ambitious summer tour” of the province in order to reconnect with Albertans, many who’ve soured on his leadership and government in the past 18 months: “We have already dozens of announcements lined up about new investments, new capital projects, job-creation announcements across the province. So, I’m going to be a pretty busy beaver over the summer getting around every corner of the province. I am so looking forward to it.”
Kenney loves to campaign, and this campaign is like no other for him. The man who united Alberta’s warring Conservative factions and won a record one million votes in the 2019 provincial election is now the underdog.
Kenney’s approval rating sits at a dismal 31 per cent, according to a recent Angus Reid survey. His United Conservative Party (UCP) government trails behind the NDP, while the right-wing Wildrose Independence Party nips at his heels.
He’s the victim of a global pandemic and his own internal politics. He promised Albertans jobs, pipelines, and a strong economy, but delivered deficits, debt, high unemployment, and a $1.3-billion loss on the Keystone XL pipeline project.
COVID might have ravaged the world, but Kenney’s response back home created scandals, and angered both those who wanted more restrictions and those who wanted fewer.
The UCP government has hit so many potholes in the past two years, many of them dug by Kenney himself, it’s a wonder the jalopy didn’t shake itself apart. Not that it didn’t try. Two MLAs were kicked out of caucus after criticizing Kenney’s leadership.
Put another way, Kenney has become the most unpopular premier in the country.
This is why he’s so eager to open up Alberta ahead of every other province. Besides the bragging rights, he’s desperate to reconnect with disgruntled Conservatives, particularly those in Calgary and rural Alberta.
This is Kenney’s Summer of Reset, just as 2019 was the Summer of Repeal, during which he scrapped just about everything enacted by the previous NDP government, including the province’s carbon tax and climate plan — and 2020 was the undeclared Summer of Restrictions, when he first began feeling the backlash of anti-masker rural Conservatives.
Not long ago, Kenney promised Albertans the “best summer ever.” It won’t be. The Calgary Stampede will be a truncated affair, Edmonton’s Folk Music Festival is cancelled, and mask bylaws will remain in some municipalities. COVID variants still lurk around the corner, ready to rain on everyone’s parade.
But at this point, the “best” is a relative term. Just as long as it’s not Summer 2020.
Kenney is hoping the Summer of Reset will get politics back to normal, at least for him. That means opening the way to an autumn when he can happily deflect attention away from his own troubles and focus it on the federal government — not to thank Trudeau for getting vaccines to Alberta (and the rest of the country), but to attack the prime minister for a myriad of faults, real and imagined.
In conjunction with the municipal elections in October, for example, Kenney will hold Senate “elections” and a referendum against the federal equalization program.
Neither has any legal standing over the federal government or the Constitution. They are political theatre aimed at getting Albertans riled up at someone other than Kenney.
He’s dusting off his anti-Ottawa “Fight Back” strategy that was quietly put on the back shelf during that awkward time when Alberta received billions of dollars in pandemic aid, and millions of vaccines, from Ottawa.
Alberta might not be getting its best summer ever, but Kenney’s hoping it will pave the way to the best political comeback ever.
MORE THOMSON: Jason Kenney puts hubris ahead of humility
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